7 lessons from CrimeFest 2017

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1. Crime authors work incredibly hard:
At every panel, I am astounded by their dedication and productivity. When someone says their 21st novel is out next month, you have to be impressed. Where do these people find the time and dedication? To be an author, you need to be committed – literally!

2. Everything has gone noir:
Genres can be invented. The wonderful Julia Crouch (if you haven’t read Cuckoo, please do. You won’t be inviting any old school friends to stay ever again) invented the term ‘Domestic Noir’. There’s plenty of talk in the sessions about many different noirs. Ann Cleeves likes Village Noir. Someone from Hull at the back of the room thinks Erotic Noir might be worth a go. You know who you are.

3. Sitting next to crime writing heroes:
CrimeFest is the place to bump into your favourites. Someone who wrote a book you invested a week of your life reading sits right next to you. We all have our favourites. ‘Into the Darkest Corner’ by Elizabeth Haynes introduced me to psychological thrillers and it’s still the best for me. How cool to say hello to her? Psychological thriller? Psychological suspense? Perhaps Obsession Noir.
Talking of Obsession, there’s another one. A brand new author not even on a panel and already racing up the charts as a best seller – Amanda Robson. I said hello to her too.
Then there’s Emma Kavanagh whose book ‘The Missing Hours’ I read after last year’s CrimeFest and loved it. Then suddenly she’s sitting next to me.
I love CrimeFest for that. It turns out your heroes are actually just normal people. Well, as normal as we all are. They just work harder.

4. Crime authors are born with two livers:
I’ve learned their secret. Crime authors are born to it. It’s something they just have to do, and they have to write stories. They don’t have a choice, and that’s because they have two livers. It’s the only way they can possibly survive CrimeFest to the last day.

5. Crime authors are patient:
Rome was built more quickly. One novel, two novels, three novels in. Keep going. It’s relentless. Build the back catalogue. Write a dozen novels before even one sees the light of day. Never give up.

6. CrimeFest inspires crime ideas:
Listening to panels can fill your notebook with ideas for plots. Is that plagiarism? Could anyone prove it? A mashup of ideas that can last a year.

7. Fill your bag with crime books for the year:
Or in my case a Kindle. Thanks CrimeFest. This year’s reading list is now full. See you next time.

Of course, saving the best for last is my new novel Held to Ransom. Take a look, there’s more to come from Emma Hawkins. If I work harder!!

CrimeFest17

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#CrimeFest17 here we come! Yes, I’m looking forward to the annual pilgrimage to attend www.crimefest.com.

The inspiration will be fantastic, the buzz of new crime fiction, the atmosphere of tension and the creation of a reading list that will last me all year.

A highlight will be hearing from Ann Cleeves. I wonder if she’ll arrive in an old Land Rover and wear a tatty raincoat and floppy green hat.

3 more lessons from David Hockney

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(Image courtesy link here – I daren’t use a real Hockney ☺ )

Back in 2012 I visited the big David Hockney exhibition in London at the time and wrote a blog piece about it. Looking back at the statistics, it was the most popular page so I thought it would be good to revisit it after attending the new Tate Britain exhibition recently.
Here’s the link to the original posting: Drawing inspiration from Hockney – 9 lessons

What has changed in five years?

Lesson 1 – he’s still prolific:
Sure, he’s been around a long time, but he has produced an enormous amount of work in his lifetime. He’s changed in style and content over the years and has always experimented with different media. The result is a comprehensive “back catalogue” of art.

Inspiration: Write every day. No excuse. Are you a professional or not? Write across many genres and try new styles. Experiment, produce and ship. Build your catalogue.

Lesson 2 – he’s big and bold:
He uses bright colours and large canvasses. He displays a real talent for drawing and perspective producing pieces that fill the wall. They absorb your attention, masking the crowd around you in the room. They can’t be ignored. You can’t just walk by.

Inspiration: Write books that fill the reader’s minds and can’t be put down. Sounds so simple.

Lesson 3 – he repeats himself:
This is something that many famous artists do. Monet’s water lilies. Cezanne’s Mont Saint-Victoire. Hockney takes a landscape and paints it in all weathers and all seasons, from the same angle and from different angles. Why? Isn’t that boring? Perhaps it’s something about the challenge of art reflecting life. We think it’s a repeat but no two days are the same.

Inspiration: Write the same locations again and again at different times of the year and for different occasions. An Oxford street is never the same twice. Describe what you see in detail to make it different every time.

Back to Basics

My blog has suffered over the last three weeks. I hit a wall at Easter, travelled, drifted, lost confidence, rested, and did a whole pile of other stuff that meant the blog posts and twittering dried up. So now it’s Friday 27th April and I’m back and trying harder than ever.

Friday posts are about writing techniques for fiction. So let’s go back and cover some basic ground. One of the first things you hear about when you start on the road of writing fiction is ‘Show don’t tell’. So what does that really mean?

  1. Don’t explain
  2. Stick to the action
  3. Give the character thoughts and feelings as he/she would experience in real life.
  4. Let the reader live the story for him/herself.

Coming from a business background, much of this is counter-intuitive. Formal training teaches you to present information that explains and reports facts from an objective point of view as briefly as possible. The most efficient way to do this is simply to tell it like it is.

Fiction is the opposite. You want the reader to work it out, and to experience all the bias, feelings and emotions of the character. In order to achieve this, you have to present the evidence, rather than report the conclusion.

Examples (not brilliant examples but you get the idea):

Tell: Graham stepped out his front door. It was a windy day.
Show: Graham had to pull the front door hard against the wind to shut it behind him.

Tell: Graham’s boss, John, was angry.
Show: When Graham arrived at work, John was waiting outside his office door, pacing the floor.

Tell: Janine had a broken leg.
Show: Janine arrived later than the rest of the gang, hobbling on her crutches.

So that’s what ‘show’ means – present the evidence and let the reader work it out. It makes the whole thing much more interesting and exciting. Get inside the head of the character and present the overall dominant impression of what is happening all around, allowing the reader to experience that for him/herself.

A couple of exceptions:

If there are a series of straight-forward facts to be presented, then sometimes it is better and more efficient to just get on and tell them. It depends on the type of novel, but many historical novels have some straightforward facts that are better just presented.

If there’s a small point to be conveyed that is immaterial to the plot, then simply telling the fact is less obtrusive.

More next week – honest. I’m back on it.

Matching the setting to the mood

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Photo credit
I set too many scenes in a coffee bar or a wine bar. I suppose it is familiar and easy and a place where I can set people to meet and talk. But it’s lazy of me and quite boring for the reader.

So where should scenes be? I mean the average, everyday scene where there’s some development of the plot between two or more characters. I don’t mean those action-packed, death defying, life threatening scenes, I mean the easier ones where there could be some kind of discussion or some romance or some review about clues discovered at a murder scene, etc.

So, I’m trying to avoid coffee shops and bars.

One way to decide a setting is to go back a step and start with the purpose of the scene, then review the mood of the characters and how that might change during the scene. Only then, choose the setting.

Take Emma, my protagonist. Let’s work out where to set some particular scenes. Rather than randomly picking some public building or location, it is better to let the setting reflect the general mood and tone of the scene, and the job is half done for you.

Example 1:
Emma is about to meet her estranged husband in order to exchange some belongings.
She’s feeling gloomy. She’s down about the demise of the marriage.

So, let’s have them meet in a car-park half way between where she lives and where he lives. That symbolises an even split, and its neutral territory. Furthermore, let it be foggy, it’s just starting to get dark, and the car-park is shrouded in mist when she arrives making it difficult to pick out the silhouette of her ex-husband.

No point in it being a bright, sunny day.

Example 2:
I need to have ways of helping Emma re-live her childhood, some memory joggers that will prompt interior monologue about her upbringing. She had happy times being brought up by her Aunt, and sadness from the loss of her mother.

I could have her sipping at a latte, reflecting. But that’s boring.
How about setting a scene in a children’s playground. She could be sitting with a friend who has children, watching them play as they catch up on some gossip. Plenty of memory jogging opportunities about the fun of childhood, and watching how mothers are there with their kids. And it’s a sunny day.

Example 3:
Emma is tense. She is in conflict with her editor at the newspaper over the line a particular story is taking. They will have a row.

I could set that scene in her editor’s office. But that’s boring, and an uneven playing field.
I could set it in a restaurant or cafe over lunch. But again, that’s quite boring.

How about setting it in a more tense situation, so there’s some tension in the background that can add to the mood?
Perhaps they are in a car together and stuck in traffic, so there’s no escape from the row. To be neutral, it could be a hire car.
And perhaps there’s some possible danger in the setting. They could be so busy with their row, when stuck in the traffic, that they don’t notice that they have stopped on a level crossing (railroad crossing) until they hear the train horn in the distance. Of course, they get to safety and the shared danger helps them to rise above their differences.

So the steps are:

  1. Think about what the scene is for. How is it developing the story? What are you trying to achieve?
  2. Think about the mood of the characters, and how their moods or feelings will change during the course of the scene.
  3. Then decide the setting, and choose a setting that is interesting and helps you.

What do you think?

7 mechanics of Interior Monologue

Continuing with some techniques from a good book called: ‘Self-Editing for Fiction Writers’ by Renni Browne and Dave King.

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http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/images/view_photog.php?photogid=2280

I always thought that internal thought was called interior dialogue, but that’s probably because I like to have a conversation with myself! So, I guess it’s more properly described as Interior Monologue.

It’s very important for my novel.

In fact, I’d say it is the most important element of any good novel. All novels have characters and, as readers, we want to know what they are thinking and we want to get inside their innermost thoughts and emotions. In that way, the story is brought alive.

Interior monologue is something that good fiction can accomplish that movies cannot. No matter how good the actor is, he/she can never fully show the innermost thoughts of the character in the way a good novel can.

A good author needs to write in a way that moves from action to thought and back again without the reader seeing that as strange. In this way. the reader will begin to understand what the character is thinking and that is a powerful way to establish the character’s personality.

However, as it is so useful and powerful, it is sometimes too easy to over-use the technique. Like other aspects of writing fiction, the key is not to over-explain.

It is beneficial to start with quite a bit of interior monologue in the early chapters, but as your novel develops the reader will get to know the main character very well and be able to predict how that character will think and behave in certain situations. So it is not necessary to spell out those thoughts later on.

What’s the right amount of interior monologue? Well, as always it’s a balance, depending on scene, mood, feelings, emotions. Basically, it is impossible to say how much is right.

Some mechanics:

  1. Don’t use quotes, single or double. Be unobtrusive,
  2. Assume that the reader gets it. There’s no need to explain when it’s interior monologue and when it isn’t.
  3. You don’t need to have your character mutter or whisper to him/herself. You’re already in that character’s viewpoint, so it isn’t necessary (unless he is someone like me who tends to talk out loud to himself ☺ ).
  4. Your character will think in his/her own words, so it’ll be in the same style as the dialogue. If the person has a word or phrase that he/she uses frequently, then that will also appear in the interior monologue.
  5. Occasionally you may need to use ‘He thought’ or ‘She thought’ to identify the passage of interior thought, but that should be very very rare.
  6. Never have two characters with interior monologue in the same scene, it’ll be too confusing. I keep it simple by sticking to one viewpoint per chapter but that is not essential.
  7. If you’re being successful at writing intimately from the character’s point of view, then the distinction between interior thought and description will naturally blur. After all, description is coming from the point of view of your character, so it starts to become the same thing. All you are doing is drifting between the external senses and the mind of the character.

What’s your thoughts on this? Want to share them? Or keep them internal?

Thanks for listening today ☺

Planting in your plot

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http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/images/Other_Leisure_Activi_g229-Plant__p30268.html

I’m a new author. I’ve never completed a novel, though I have started many. I’ve written and published dozens of short stories, but a novel, well that is hard work. Why is it so different? Well, I think it is down to plot and structure.

Short stories have characters, good characterisation, dialogue, descriptive passages, beats, interior dialogue, viewpoint, voice – all these different aspects of fiction writing. But they don’t need a lot of structure and their plots tend to be pretty simple.

So, embarking on a novel, what better book to get than:
‘Plot and Structure – techniques and exercises for crafting a plot that grips readers from start to finish’ by James Scott Bell
If you are attempting to write a novel, you should buy this book. Preferably in paper form, not kindle. And don’t think you’ll be passing it on to a charity shop at some point, you won’t – you’ll need it, so you can scribble and highlight away as you wish.

One of the small items tucked away in the last chapter caught my eye recently.
It’s titled ‘Inverting the Rifle Rule’.

The Russian playwright Anton Chekhov had a famous rule that said if, in the first act, you show a rifle hanging on the wall of the room where the play is set, then the rifle must be used before the end of the play, preferably in the third act. This is really a rule of expectation – if you set something up, then you need to deliver on it.

Bell suggests that, as writers, we should think of the rule in reverse. If we are going to have someone shot in the third act, then we should plant the gun somewhere in the first act. This approach greatly enhances the plausibility of the plot, since the reader is not so surprised that certain events take place.

The classic example that Bell quotes is the James Bond stories. It is the role of Q to provide the gadgets for James Bond to escape from the various traps and tortures he has to undertake. We are acquainted with these gadgets early in the story, not knowing when or where they will be used. But then, when James is trapped and apparently going to be mortally wounded, we can find the escape mechanism plausible.

Most planting needs to be more subtle than this. In the novel I am working on, my protagonist is called Emma. At a point in the story Emma faces danger requiring her to fight another person. Fist fighting does not come naturally to most people, and Emma is a journalist, so it’s not exactly part of her everyday life. But I need her to win the fight.

Having read this section of Bell’s book, I now realise that I can have Emma learn self-defence skills at her gym in an evening class, or perhaps at a training course that the paper sends her on. This will add depth to Emma’s characterisation, give her the necessary skills to win a fight, and as an added bonus, I can use that scene at the gym or training course for another purpose too – for example, to meet someone who later becomes a firm friend.

So, think about your plants and place them carefully in the early parts of your stories.

I’ve blogged before about how to structure a short story and the 8 point arc. See this previous blog post. and I’ll continue to delve into this art of novel writing that has a fair bit of science to it as well.

Your thoughts?

Eight ways golf connects with writing

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http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/images/view_photog.php?photogid=2280

It’s spring, the daffodils are starting to peek and golf is in the air. I have dusted off my golf clubs and given them a clean, paying particular attention to the seldom-used sweet spots. I’m not a good golfer, but it gets me out the house and is sociable. I play about a dozen times a year.

I started to think whether there’s any connection with my writing. Could the golf inspire my writing? Could my writing inspire my golf?

  1. The more you practice, the better you’ll get.
    • No matter how bad you are at golf, if you get out there and play once a week or once every couple of weeks then by the end of the summer, you’ll be a better player. It’ll improve your fitness, health and flexibility. And you’ll feel good for the achievement. You’ll be able to measure your progress, your improvement.
    • No more to be said, you get it. Write often, write everyday. You’ll get better and you’ll feel good.
  2. There are techniques to learn
    • Golf lessons are helpful. I’ve taken a few over the years. They get you out of bad habits. They teach you how to hit the ball more cleanly.
    • There are techniques for writing too. I’m trying to write fiction. Writing courses help. Read articles, read books, practice your style, analyse your content and improve its structure. (See, thanks to Roz Morris, I didn’t put the apostrophe in its, that’s a simple improvement I’ve made ☺ )
  3. Hit the ball harder
    • One of my friends hits the ball harder than me. His ball goes further. It’s that simple. Easily explained but tricky to achieve.
    • When you write, try typing faster. You’ll get more written. I find that my writing brain is faster than my fingers. Is that the case with you? And I don’t just mean you should write faster WITH mistakes – I mean proper clean fault-free typing, WITHOUT the back-space key. That’s the hard bit. Just type faster properly and you’ll get more done.
  4. Join a club.
    • I have never joined a golf club. I can’t commit to the time and the cost, or I won’t commit. What does that say? Many people do make that commitment and their golf improves as a result.
    • I am in a couple of writing groups. They make me write, they help me to learn, they keep me honest. Join one, it really helps. It’s commitment.
  5. Equip yourself properly.
    • I need a new driver. Do I? Can I justify that? Would my golf really improve that much? Well, to a point, yes I think it can. The right gear is right for a reason. It doesn’t have to be that expensive, but it does have to be reasonable.
    • For my writing, I use Scrivener, plus a number of other bits of software I could make the subject of a separate blog. The right tools do help. If you want to use a paper notebook, make it a good one, with a good pen. Go on, spoil yourself, you’re worth it.
  6. Go in the right direction – keep the ball straight
    • The idea of golf is to hit the ball toward the pin, usually in as straight a line as possible, avoiding obstacles on the way. Heading off into the rough is not a good idea, and you can easily lose your ball completely.
    • How many times do you write off down a cul-de-sac? Have a plan, write with a purpose and direction. I like to try to do that, so as to avoid my writing rough and lose my plot. I hate wasting scenes. I think with practice that I should actually waste a bit more than I do (kill your darlings and all that) but overall, a goal helps. Aim for the pin.
  7. Putting
    • A good golfer practices his/her putting. Half your shots in a round of golf are on the green. It’s not all about hitting the ball a long way, sometimes it’s about the finesse of short-range accuracy.
    • For me, good writing has a healthy dose of close-up detail. As a reader, those details help me to build a picture of the scene. The flaking paint on a wall, the musty smell in an unventilated cellar, the tiny laughter lines around her mouth, the little inflexions of green in her blue eyes, the way he pushes his glasses back up his nose, anything that draws attention to the very smallest detail helps you visualise better.
  8. Take it seriously.
    • Even as a fun hobby, golf is more rewarding if taken seriously. Some will say that the whole ethos of golf is quite stuffy with the smartness of dress required and the etiquette around the course, but all this helps to make for better play.
    • If you’re a writer, be a writer. Tell people you are and don’t make excuses. I’m writing a novel. It’s not a grand design, or on my life’s wish-list: it’s real, underway and in the execution phase. If it’s to be good, I need to behave as a professional writer with the etiquette that requires.

What are your experiences with golf? Could they help your writing?

Dialogue Mechanics

Continuing my Friday theme of posting fiction writing techniques, here is some more about the art and science of dialogue.
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1. Dialogue is the first thing readers look for.When I am browsing in a bookstore and pick up a novel I am considering, I flick through the pages and see the pattern and density on the page, the paragraphing and the dialogue. Then I read a little and it tends to be the dialogue that I read first. It sets the tone for the novel.

So it is important to get dialogue right and I have studied the mechanics of dialogue from this great book: ‘Self-Editing for Fiction Writers’ by Renni Browne and Dave King.

 

2. Don’t over-explain
“You can’t be serious,” she said in astonishment.
This is lazy writing. The writing should be strong enough that the reader gets the fact she is astonished.
Resist the Urge to Explain. R.U.E.
Let the dialogue SHOW the emotion.
Don’t explain stuff in the narrative that you also explain in the dialogue – should be in one or the other.
Avoid all -ly adverbs attached to ‘said’, like grimly, swiftly, etc. You could occasionally use ‘softly’ if the person is whispering but that’s about it.

 

 
3. Speaker attributions
He said. She said.
That’s it. No more. Just use said.
Never use he growled, she snapped, he whined, etc.
Where possible, and it’s clear, leave out altogether.
Bad example:
“Give it to me,” she demanded.
“Here it is,” he offered.
“Is it loaded?” she enquired.
Just use SAID
Readers won’t even notice it.
Better to say ‘He said’ rather than ‘said he’ – more common practice these days.

 

4. Substitute beats for speaker attributions
This can be handy when there are three or more people in the scene.
You have to find a way to let the reader know who is talking, and there could be two or more ‘he’s’ or ‘she’s’ in the room.
Used sparingly, beats can be useful, but don’t use too often
What is a beat?
Example: Dudley stepped between them and help up his hands. “Now, look, you two.”
Beats are bits of action interspersed through a scene, such as a character walking to a window or removing his glasses and rubbing his eye.
Usually physical gestures but could be a short passage of interior dialogue.
They are used to help tie dialogue to setting and characters.
They provide little bits of imagery that guide readers’ imaginations.

 

5. Dashes and Ellipses
Use dashes to show an interruption of a sentence from one character by another character.
Use ellipses to show a trailing off, when a character runs out of a sentence but is un-interrupted.

6. Paragraphs
Start a new paragraph when you start a new speaker.

 

In summary, there are some simple rules to follow that really help your dialogue flow and make your writing more professional.

What are your experiences? Do you have advice for new writers about their use of dialogue?

The purpose of Dialogue

I’ve been studying dialogue. There are certain techniques that really help that I will explore over the next couple of blogs. Just to recap, Friday is all about writing skills and the Tuesday posts are short-stories derived from popular song lyrics.

So, this Friday and for the next couple of Fridays(I think), I will focus on dialogue as it relates to short-stories and novels. These comments stem from a whole host of Internet sites and blogs on the subject and also a fantastic book that I recommend called ‘Self-Editing for Fiction Writers’ by Renni Browne and Dave King. There are many useful chapters in this book that I will recap in future blogs.

What is the the purpose of dialogue?

Every piece of dialogue you include should be there for a reason:

  • To break up the narrative — you can use dialogue to balance out the other elements of fiction such as the description.
  • To advance the plot — character discussions can ultimately change the course of the plot, and this is a very effective way of showing that change.
  • To develop conflict — arguing characters creates conflict and dialogue can build the tension.
  • To present information — dialogue can be used as an alternative way to present the necessary facts.
  • To develop character — Dialogue can reveal the personality, age, intelligence and experience of a character.

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http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/images/view_photog.php?photogid=2280

Showing the development of a character is one of the more important aspects of dialogue. Rather than simply telling the reader that a character has changed and is, for example, no longer shy, it is more effective to write a piece of dialogue in a scene where that character demonstrates that he/she has overcome the shyness, perhaps by approaching a complete stranger.

Dialogue is a very effective way to convey personality, and it is important to think through the ways in which a person of that personality will speak or present himself/herself to an audience. Is he timid? Is she assertive? Critical? Kind? Irritated? Passive? Well educated?

I find that the first few interactions of a new character really set the scene for how that person will behave throughout the story. So it is important to start right, and I usually spend a little while experimenting with the character before placing them in the scene proper. I might write a short piece where the character is interviewed with a set of questions about his/her life and likes/dislikes. The way in which the character answers helps to get me in the way of thinking for that character.

There are many blogs and websites out there that help you to think through different behaviour patterns and characteristics and I will add a small compendium of them to this blog at some point soon.

Some rules about dialogue. (Of course, when I say rule…all rules are there to be broken…perhaps guidelines would be more appropriate.)

  • Take out the superfluous conversations and summarise to one sentence. We don’t want ramblings about the weather or what the person had for breakfast. (they can use twitter for that!).
  • Be consistent. We all repeat ourselves, or use slang in certain ways. It adds authenticity to add that to a character.
  • Generally people talk in short sentences. Save the literary expositions for the narrative.
  • Be more articulate on the page than would normally be said in a certain situation – use a bigger vocabulary than the person might have.
  • Be VERY sparing about using action as a dialogue tag – it can work occasionally but not too often.

I’ll blog next week with more rules about the mechanics of dialogue. Hope this is useful – it is to me!